Friday, January 18, 2013

Recent Reads: Inauguration Edition

David Maraniss, Barack Obama: The Story.

My most important take away from this book is learning how much President Obama consciously shaped his own identity through a series of myths. Most of the myths are based on events that took place. But, Maraniss discovered that his reconstructions of the events differed in some ways from those told by Obama in Dreams of My Father. Some stories are told out of sequence with altered effects. Characters in the Dreams of My Father are composites of real individuals. Finally, some meanings are given greater weight in the memoir than they might have actually had at the time. This was no shock to me. As a biographer, I see conscious mythmaking to some extent or another in every biography. Moreover, we are not all St. Paul on the Damascus road. Revelation can come slower, and events of the past can be revaluated later in life granting it greater influence.

I really liked how Maraniss traced the genealogy of Obama’s maternal and paternal lines from Kansas and Kenya to their intersection in Hawaii, itself a multicultural melting pot. Maraniss visited the scenes of Obama’s life in Africa, Indonesia, and North America and talked to those who knew the president, his parents, and other key figures in the book. These travels resulted in lots of primary material and some good photographs that appear in the gallery. I found the most interesting parts of the book to be about the senior Barack (pronounced Bar-rick, not BUH-rock) Obama who, as a member of the founding generation of post-colonial Africans, participated in a unique historical moment, the formation of a nation. He might have played a more significant role had not alcohol driven him to ruination. One of the major thesis of the books is that the son was so much better off without the physical presence (he appears to have always been a mental presence) of the ill tempered, demanding, self-absorbed, arrogant, and abusive alcoholic father in his life. Despite the mixed race genealogy and the lack of parents, there was a lot of ordinariness to the future president’s life. He was not terribly interested in school work, hung out with friends, was absorbed in sports (especially basketball) and girls. And being a child of the 70s he and his friends in the “Choom Gang” smoked a lot of pot. I am not sure how many of us would want our teenage years given such scrutiny.

James Kloppenberg, Reading Obama

As where Maraniss wrote a very personal biography of the inner thoughts of our 44th president, James Kloppenberg constructed an intellectual biography of Barack Obama to explain his political philosophy. I loved this book. It is a great demonstration of how ideas substantively shape our thinking. Instead of finding Obama to be a Kenyan anti-imperialist, Marxist, socialist, or whatever else has appeared on the bookstands in the last four years, Kloppenberg finds Obama to be a pragmatic progressive in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson and a Madisonian who considers democracy a battleground of ideas requiring give and take. I accept this thesis. More interestingly, Kloppenberg finds the roots to both his progressivism and his pragmatism in the works he knows Obama has read. Reading this made me realize why Obama has given those on both the right and left political fits. He is not ideologically rigid. To be pragmatic is to look at an issue in the light of the current situation and environment. It is the art of what is possible. The president has used a phrase about not letting the perfect becoming the enemy of the possible. This allows just enough daylight for his enemies to pour in every crackpot theory and for his disappointed friends to doubt his sincerity to their cause.

David Corn, Showdown

This makes the case that Obama has been a successful president. He did not always do what his friends have wanted him to do, but he has succeeded in getting as much done as was possible in the political environment. Instead, of seeing the financial negotiations with the Republican House leadership in 2010 and 2011 as failures and capitulations, Corn argues the president deftly fashioned a second stimulus (but not called as such) and secured some of his administration’s top goals (such as an historic arms control treaty with Russia).

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